Mike O'Connor at a 2012 press conference in Culiacán. (Ron Bernal)
Mike O'Connor at a 2012 press conference in Culiacán. (Ron Bernal)

Remembering Mike O’Connor

It is a sad end to 2013 for the global press freedom community.

With the sudden death of CPJ Mexico Representative Mike O’Connor, 67, on Sunday, Mexican journalists have lost one of their most formidable advocates. Mike will be remembered as someone who was on the forefront of the struggle for press freedom. His superb skills as an investigative journalist helped scores of reporters across the country during a period marred by violence and censorship.

Since he started working for CPJ in January 2009, Mike played a critical role as an advocate for the rights of Mexican journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. He was an exceptional journalist, truly committed to the cause of human rights and press freedom, and his extensive travels across Mexico gave him a profound understanding of the problems that local journalists face in a climate of lawlessness and fear.

Javier Garza Ramos, former editor of the embattled newspaper El Siglo de Torreón in Coahuila, remembered Mike with great admiration. “Mike’s presence was essential during a crisis. In the rush to take protective measures, Mike’s phone calls, several times a day, were not only a reminder that we were not alone, but a guide amid confusion,” he wrote. “His death leaves a great void in the struggle of Mexican journalists for security and protection. And it leaves me with an unpaid debt for his generosity, support and friendship.”

Mike often wrote about how reporters and their families were affected by the violence that has made Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press. His first special report for CPJ, which described the dire situation for journalists in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, is an excellent example of his outstanding skills as a reporter. But perhaps the most impactful one was “Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press,” which CPJ presented to former President Felipe Calderón in September 2010.

Mike’s work had a tremendous impact on one of CPJ’s biggest successes in recent years. On May 3, in what CPJ called “a step forward in the fight against impunity,” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed legislation to implement a constitutional amendment giving federal authorities broader jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against freedom of expression. Mike’s contribution to that milestone was huge. He campaigned tirelessly for more involvement from the federal government in prosecuting press crimes, and persuaded journalists, advocates, legislators, and officials that the passage of the amendment would provide the country with a better framework to protect freedom of expression. He finally prevailed.

A particularly frank colleague, Mike would never hesitate to tell Mexican officials how he felt about the risks that his Mexican colleagues faced. Former CPJ awardee Javier Valdez Cárdenas, one of the founders of the Culiacán-based magazine Ríodoce, remembered a comment Mike made in 2012 during a press conference in Culiacán. “Who is in charge in Sinaloa? Is it the governor or them …?” Mike had asked at the time. The statement was interpreted, Valdez said, as a description of the influence that Mexican drug cartels exert over state officials, a topic that Mike had covered extensively. Valdez said his Sinoloa colleagues never forgot the comment.

“We will always remember his dignity, his laughter and his witticism,” Valdez said. “‘Maicol,’ as we called him in Ríodoce, was a true friend.”

Mike had a long and brilliant career as a foreign correspondent. He covered the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for NPR, and the former Yugoslavia and Central America for NPR and The New York Times. He earned an Overseas Press Club award for his reporting from Haiti. He covered Latin America for CBS News and was a television reporter in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles.

I had the honor and privilege of working with Mike for five years. His words and his actions on behalf of press freedom will continue to be an inspiration to all of us. We will miss his commitment to press freedom, his sarcasm and sense of humor, and his friendship.

Our deepest condolences go out to Mike’s wife, Tracy Wilkinson, to his family, and to his many friends. If you knew Mike, we invite you to share your memories of him in a comment below.